The Daughters of England/Chapter III
In order to speak with more precision of those attainments which youth is the season for acquiring, I must class them under three different heads—cleverness, learning, and knowledge. By cleverness, I would be understood to mean, dexterity and aptness in doing everything which falls within the sphere of ordinary duty. Cleverness of the hand, is no mean attainment in a woman. It is, in fact, of almost as much value to her, as dexterity to the surgeon; for though he may have knowledge to understand what is best to be done, unless his hand be skilful to do it, his knowledge will avail him but little in any case of emergency, where the life of a fellow-creature is at stake.
The cleverness of the hand, therefore, though almost entirely neglected in modern education, except as relates to practice on the keys of the piano, is a qualification which, while it takes nothing away from the charm of feminine delicacy, imparts the additional charm of perpetual cheerfulness, added to a capability of general usefulness, and a consequent readiness for action whenever occasion may require our services.
To know how to do every thing which can properly come within a woman's sphere of duty, ought to be the ambition of every female mind. For my own part, I do not believe I have ever learned anything, even down to such a trifle as a new stitch, but I have found a use for it, and that in a surprisingly short space of time; for either it has occupied what would otherwise have been idle time, it has used up what would otherwise have been wasted material, or I have taught it to others who were more in need of it than myself. Besides which, there is the grand preventive this dexterity supplies against ever being at a loss what to do—the happiness it affords, both to ourselves and others, to be perpetually employed—the calm it diffuses over a naturally restless temperament; but, above all, the ability this habit affords in cases of sickness, or other emergency, to turn all our means to account in the service of our friends.
This, however, can never be so thoroughly effected, as when the cleverness of the hand is aided by the faculty of invention. And here I would ask—how is it?—how can it be, that the exercise of this faculty forms so trifling a part of female education? Never does a woman enter upon the actual business of life, whatever it may be, but her ingenuity is taxed in some way or other; and she suffers blame, or endures contempt, just so far as she fails in this respect. If, at a critical juncture of time, any accident takes place in household affairs, woman is expected to cover up the defect, or supply the deficiency. If any article of common use is missing when wanted, woman is expected to provide a substitute. If the accustomed supply of comfort or enjoyment fails, it is woman's fault. No matter how great the deficiency of material with which she has to work, domestic comfort, order and respectability rest with her, and she must be accountable for the falling short in any, or all of these. It is true that she is endowed by nature with the faculty of invention, in a higher degree, perhaps, than men, and skilfully and nobly does she sometimes use it; but does not the very fact of this endowment teach us that it has thus been provided by Providence for the part she has to act in life? and ought we not the more sedulously to carry out this merciful design, by a higher cultivation of so useful a faculty? Why, for instance, should we not have premiums on a small scale, or other encouragements, in our public seminaries, for the most ingenious and useful inventions? Why should there not be a little museum attached to every school, in which such specimens of ingenuity could be kept? We all know there are few simple pleasures which surpass those derived from the exercise of the faculty of invention; might it not, therefore, be rendered as profitable, as it is amusing, by filling up some of the idle hours of a school-girl's life, and occupying the time too frequently appropriated to mere gossip on subjects by no means calculated to improve the morals, or enlarge the understanding?
The little girl of four years old, seated on a footstool beside her mother, is less happy in the rosy cheeks and shining curls of her new doll, than in the shawl she has herself invented for it, or the bonnet her sister is making. It is the same throughout the whole season of early youth. What is drawing, that most delightful of all amusements to a child, but the exercise of the faculty of invention? So soon as this exercise is reduced to a science, so soon as "perspective dawns," and the juvenile performer is compelled to copy, the charm of the performance in a great measure ceases. It is true, it will be restored a hundredfold when acquaintance with the rules of art shall enable the young student again to design, and with better effect; but during her infancy, she has far more enjoyment in her own red-brick house, with a volume of green smoke issuing from every chimney; and in her own round-bodied man, whose nose is emulous of a beak, and his eye in the centre of his head, than in the most elaborate and finished drawings which a master could lay before her; not, certainly, because she sees more symmetry or likelihood in these creatures of her own formation, but simply because of the pleasure she enjoyed while inventing them.
It is a subject of delightful reflection, and it ought to be a source of unfailing gratitude, that some of those natural propensities which afford us the greatest pleasure, are, in reality, capable of being made conducive to the greatest good. Thus, when the little quiet girl is so happy and so busy with her pencils, or her scissors, she is indulging that natural propensity of her mind, which is, in after life, to render her still happier, by enabling her to turn to the best account every means of increasing the happiness of those around her, of rendering assistance in any social or domestic calamity that may occur, of supply in every time of household need, and of comfort in every season of distress.
But if the value of invention, and the ready application of existing means, be overlooked under all other circumstances in a sick-room, none can doubt its efficacy. The visitations of sickness, however unlikely, or unlooked for, they may be to the young, are liable to all—the gay and the grave, the rich and the poor, the vigorous and the feeble; and we have only to visit some of those favourite spots of earth which have become the resort of invalids from every land, to see how often the most delicate females are plunged into all the solemn and sacred mysteries of the chamber of sickness and death.
It is under such circumstances that ingenuity, when connected with kindly feeling, and readiness to assist, is of the utmost possible value. There may be the same kind feeling without it; but how is such feeling to operate?—by teasing the invalid perpetually about what he would like, or not like? The querulous and fretful state of mind which suffering so often induces, is ill calculated to brook this minute investigation of its wants and wishes; and such is the capricious nature of a sickly appetite, that every anticipated relish is apt to pall, before the feeble desire can be gratified. We are therefore inflicting positive pain upon the sufferer—mental pain, in addition to that of the body, by compelling him to choose, and then to appear discontented, or ungrateful, in becoming dissatisfied with his own choice.
How thankful, then, ought women to be, that they possess, by nature, the faculty of invention; and how careful ought to be their cultivation of this precious gift, when it can enable them to relieve from pain and annoyance those who already feel that they have enough of both. How happy, in comparison, is that woman, who, by the habitual exercise of her ingenuity, is able so to make the most of the means within her power, as to supply, without its having to be solicited, the very thing which is most needed; and though her endeavours may possibly fail again and again, there will sometimes be a smile of grateful acknowledgement on the lips of the sufferer, that will richly repay her most anxious care; or, if not, she will still be happier, when occupied by a series of inventions for the benefit of one she loves, than those can be who think, and think again, and end by only wishing they could think of any thing that could accommodate, or relieve.
The faculty of invention, however, will fail of more than half its use, if the hand is not early accustomed to obey the head, in all those little niceties of management which female occupations require. There must be a facility in the application and movement of the hand, which can only be acquired in early life; and I would humbly suggest the importance of this in our public seminaries for young ladies, for I confess it has often seemed to me a little hard, that young women of the middle ranks of life, should be dismissed from these establishments, after having spent years with little more exercise of the hand than is required by the music-master; yet are they no sooner plunged into active life, as women—I do not say, as ladies—than the readiest and best, nay, sometimes, even the cheapest, method of doing every thing which a woman can do, is expected of them. In all those cases of failure which must necessarily ensue, parents and brothers are equally dissatisfied; while they themselves, disappointed that their accomplishments are no longer valued as they were at school, and perplexed with the new, and apparently humbling, duties which present themselves, sink into a state of profitless despondency; and all this is owing to the simple fact of their not having been prepared, when young, for what is expected of them in after life.
Far be it from me, however, to advocate the old system of stitching, as the best kind of education for the daughters of England, of whom higher and nobler things are required. But why should we not choose the medium between two extremes? and while we reprobate the elaborate needlework of our grandmothers, why should we not be equally solicitous to avoid the evils arising from an entire disuse of the female hand, until the age of womanhood? Neither would I be supposed to advocate that entire absorption of the female mind in a world of worsted work, which is now so frequently the case immediately on leaving school, and which I am inclined to attribute, in a great measure, to a necessary reaction of the mind, after having been occupied during the whole term of scholastic discipline, in what is so foreign to its nature, that the first days—nay, months, and even years, of liberty, are spent in the busy idleness of assorting different shades of Berlin wool.
These, I must allow, are pleasant amusements in their way, and when the head and the heart are weary, may have their refreshment and their use; but even in these occupations, the beaten track of custom is too much followed. The hand is more exercised than the head. To imitate is more the object than to invent, while, if the same pains were taken to create a pattern as to borrow one, new ideas might be perpetually struck out, and the mind, even in this humble sphere of action, might find as much employment as the hand.
It is sometimes made the subject of regret by learned, well-informed, and highly-gifted women, that the occupations peculiar to our sex are so trifling; or, in other words, that they afford so little exercise for the mind. To say nothing here of the folly and the danger of allowing ourselves to despise such duties as God has set before us, I am disposed to question whether it is not in a great measure our own fault that these duties are invested with so little mind. Invention is surely no mean faculty, and I have shown how it may be exercised, even upon the most trifling affairs of woman's life. Economy is no mean principle, and this may be acted upon in the application of the humblest means to any particular end. Industry is no mean virtue, and we may be practising this, while filling up every spare moment with some occupation of the hand. Cheerfulness is no mean embellishment to the female character; and seldom is cheerfulness preserved, when the hand is allowed to be useless and idle.
I confess there is a listless way of merely "getting through" with female occupations, in which little mind, and still less good feeling, is called into action: but when a lively invention is perpetually at work; when a careful economy is practised for the sake of making the most of all our materials, and sparing our money, it may be for the purpose of assisting the sorrowful or the destitute; where habits of industry are thus engrafted into the character; and where cheerfulness lights up every countenance in a family thus employed; especially where there is any considerable degree of talent or illumination of mind, how many brilliant thoughts may arise out of the simplest subject, and how much rational enjoyment may be derived from the humblest occupations.
I cannot dismiss the subject of cleverness, or dexterity in doing whatever may come within the sphere of female duty, without observing that its importance refers in an especial manner to domestic usefulness. Nor let the young lady, who may read this, too hastily turn away with contempt from so humble a strain of advice. It does not follow, because she knows how to do everything, that she must always do it. But it does follow, that if she wishes to stand at the head of her household, to be respected by her own servants, and to feel herself the mistress of her own affairs, that she must be acquainted with the best method of doing everything upon which domestic comfort depends.
These remarks can of course have no reference to families who occupy a higher rank in society, and whose means enable them to employ a housekeeper as the medium of communication between the mistress and the servants. I speak of those who have to give orders themselves, or who, in cases of illness, receiving company, or other derangements of the usual routine of domestic affairs, have to take an active part in household economy themselves. To such, how unfortunate is it not to have learned, before they attempt to direct others, the best method of applying every means so as to be productive of the greatest comfort, at the least expense. I would of course be understood to mean, with the least possible risk of absolute waste. Your table may be sumptuous or simple, your furniture costly or plain—that will depend upon the rate at which you fix your expenditure, and has nothing to do with the point in question. The absolute waste of material, in whatever is manufactured, prepared, or produced, is an evil of a distinct nature, and can never be allowed to any extent, where it is possible to be avoided, without a deficiency of common sense, or of moral rectitude.
In my observations upon the women of England, I have dwelt so much upon the desirableness of domestic usefulness, that I cannot with propriety enlarge upon it here. Yet, such is my view of this subject, that if I were asked which of the three was most valuable in a woman—cleverness, learning, or knowledge; and supposing all to have an equal accompaniment of good sense, good feeling, and good principle, I believe I should answer in favour of the first, provided the situation of the woman was in the middle rank of life, and she could not enjoy more than one of these valuable recommendations.
Youth is considered to be so exclusively the season for acquiring a skilful touch in the practice of music, that scarcely is the experiment ever tried of acquiring the same dexterity in after life. If then it is the only time for attaining excellence in what is merely an embellishment to the character, of how much importance must this season be for practising the hand in that ready obedience to the head in all affairs of actual usefulness, which justly entitles its possessor to the distinction of cleverness.
In order to convey a more correct idea of my meaning, when I speak of cleverness, I will simply add, that a woman possessed of this qualification is seldom at a loss what to do; seldom gives wrong orders; seldom mistakes the right means of producing the end she desires; seldom spoils, or wastes, or mismanages the work she undertakes; never hurries to and fro in a state of confusion, not knowing what is best to be done first; and never yields to her own feelings, so as to incapacitate her from the service of others, at any critical moment when her assistance may be most needed. Nor are her recommendations only of a negative kind. Her habitual self-possession is a positive good, her coolness, her promptitude, her power to adapt herself to circumstances, all give worth and dignity to her character in the estimation of others; while they afford peace and satisfaction to her own mind.
Learning, Dr. Johnson tells us, is skill in languages or science. With regard to the time spent in the acquisition of languages, I fear I must incur the risk of being thought neither liberal nor enlightened; for I confess, I do not see the value of languages to a woman, except so far as they serve the purpose of conversation with persons of different countries, or acquaintance with the works of authors, whose essential excellencies cannot be translated into our own tongue; and how far these two objects are carried out by the daughters of England, either from necessity or inclination, I must leave to their own consideration.
With regard to the dead languages, the former of these two motives cannot apply. It may, however, be justly considered as a wholesome exercise of the mind, provided there is nothing better to be done, for young women to learn Greek and Latin; but beyond this, I feel perfectly assured, that for any knowledge they will acquire through the medium of the best Greek and Latin authors, our most approved translations would more than answer their purpose. It is true, that a knowledge of these languages gives an insight into the meaning of many important words in our own; yet, an early and extensive reading of our standard books, would unquestionably give the same, along with a greater fund of useful and practical information; and for every purpose of female elocution, I strongly suspect that good Saxon-English would be found as clear, impressive, and convincing, as any which can boast a more classical construction.
There is one motive assigned in the present day, for young ladies learning Greek, but especially Hebrew, which I should be sorry to treat with irreverence or disrespect, because it has weight with some of the most serious and estimable of their sex. I mean the plea of being thus enabled to read the Scriptures in the original. Now, if such young ladies have really nothing better to do, or if from the high order of their natural capabilities they have a chance, even the remotest, of being able to throw some additional light upon our best translations, far be it from me to wish to put the slightest obstacle in their way. Yet, I own it does appear to me a little strange, that after considering the length of time required for attaining a sufficient knowledge of these languages, and the number of learned commentators and divines, who have spent the best part of their valuable lives, in labouring to ascertain the true meaning of the language of the Scriptures, and when the result of those labours is open to the public, it does appear to me a little strange, that any young woman, of moderate abilities, should enter the field with such competitors, in the hope of attaining a nearer approach to the truth than they have done; and I have been led to question, whether it would not be quite as well for such individuals to be content to take the Bible as it is, and to employ the additional time, they would thus become possessed of, in disseminating its truths and acting out its principles, so far as they have already been made clear to the humblest understanding.
These remarks, however, have especial reference to moderate abilities; because there is with some persons a peculiar gift for the acquisition of languages; and believing, as I do, that no gift is bestowed in vain, I would not presume to question the propriety of such young persons spending at least some portion of their lives, in endeavouring to acquire the power of doing for themselves, what has already been done for them.
It is a remarkable phenomenon in our nature, that some of those persons who have the greatest facility in acquiring languages, have the least perception of the genius or spirit of such languages when they are acquired. The knowledge of many languages obtains for its possessor the distinction of being learned; but if she goes no farther, if she never expatiates in the new world of literature, into which her knowledge might have introduced her; she is but like a curious locksmith, who opens the door upon some hidden treasure, and who, instead of examining or appropriating the precious store to which he has obtained access, goes on to another door, and then another, satisfied with merely being master of the keys, and knowing how to unlock at his pleasure.
To women of this class of mind, provided they belong to the middle rank of life, and are not intended either for teachers or translators, of what possible use can be the learning of the dead languages? and to others similarly circumstanced, but without this peculiar talent, there are excellent translations in almost every library, from which they will acquire a greater number of ideas, and become more intimately acquainted with the spirit of the writer, and the customs and the times of which he wrote, than it is probable they ever could have been from their own reading of the same works in the original.
With regard to modern languages, the case is very different. Facilities of communication between one country and another are now so great, that it has become no longer a dream of romance, but a matter of reasonable calculation, with our young women, even in the humble ranks of life, that they should some time or other go abroad. With our modern writers too, it is so much the custom to indulge in the use of at least three languages, while professing to write in one, as to render it almost a necessary part of female education to learn both French and Italian. If these languages have not been sufficiently attended to at school, they may therefore, with the utmost propriety, be added to such studies as it is desirable to continue for some years afterwards; and while their more perfect acquisition is an object of laudable desire, the mind, as it expands in its progress towards maturity, will be better able to appreciate the beauties they unfold.
I have been compelled, during the course of these remarks, to use an expression which requires some explanation. I have said, that a young woman may with propriety learn even the dead languages, provided she has nothing better to do; by which, I would be understood to mean, provided she does not consequently leave undone what would render her more useful or amiable as a woman. The settlement of this question must depend entirely upon the degree of her talent, and the nature of her position in life. If she has no other talent likely to make her so useful as that which is employed in learning Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, this settles the point at once, or if she has no duties so important to her as to ascertain the derivation of words, or to study the peculiarities of heathen writers, then by all means let her be a learned lady, for every study, every occupation of mind, provided it does not include what is evil, must be preferable to absolute idleness.
But may we not turn to the consideration of science as opening a wide field of interesting study, which does more to enlarge the mind, and give right views of common things, than the mere acquisition of language?
"Science!—what have we to do with science?" exclaim half a dozen soft voices at once. Certainly not to give public lectures, nor always to attend them, unless you go, with your understanding prepared by some previous reading, or acquaintance with the subjects, which in then lecture-room are necessarily rather illustrated, than fully explained. Neither is it necessary that you should sacrifice any portion of your feminine delicacy by diving too deep, or approaching too near the professor's chair. A slight knowledge of science in general is all which is here recommended, so far as it may serve to obviate some of those groundless and irrational fears, which arise out of mistaken apprehensions of the phenomena of nature and art; but, above all, to enlarge our views of the great and glorious attributes of the Creator, as exhibited in the most sublime, as well as the most insignificant, works of his creation.
Perhaps one of the lowest advantages, and I am far from thinking it a low one either, which is derived by women from a general knowledge of science, is, that it renders them more companionable to men. If they are solicitous to charm the nobler sex by their appearance, dress, and manners, surely it is of more importance to interest them by their conversation. By the former they may please; by the latter they may influence, and that to the end of their lives. Yet, how is it possible to interest by their conversation, without some understanding of the subjects which chiefly occupy the minds of men? Most kindly, however, has it been accorded by man to his feeble sister, that it should not be necessary for her to talk much, even on his favourite topics, in order to obtain his favour. An attentive listener is generally all that he requires; but in order to listen attentively, and with real interest, it is highly important that we should have considerable understanding of the subject discussed; for the interruption of a single foolish or irrelevant question, the evidence of a wandering thought, the constrained attitude of attention, or the rapid response which conveys no proof of having received an idea, are each sufficient to break the charm, and destroy the satisfaction which most men feel in conversing with really intelligent women.
It is also worth some attention to this subject, if we can thereby dispel many of the idle fears which occupy and perplex the female mind. I have known women who were quite as much afraid of a gun when it was not loaded, as when it was; others who thought a steam-engine as likely to explode when it was not working, as when it was; and others still, who avowedly considered thunder more dangerous than lightning. Now, to say nothing of the irritation which fears like these are apt to occasion in minds of a more masculine order, it is surely no insignificant attainment to acquire a habit of feeling at ease, when there is really nothing to be afraid of.
But, far beyond this, the use of science is to teach us not to
"Wrong thee, mighty Nature!
and higher still, to teach us how the wisdom and goodness of God pervade all creation. Women are too much accustomed to look at the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms with eyes that may almost literally be said, not to see. An insect is to them a little troublesome thing, which flies or creeps; a flower is a petty ornament, with a sweet perfume; and a mine of coal or copper, something which they read about in their Geography, as belonging to Newcastle, or Wales. I do not say, that their actual knowledge is thus limited; but that they are too much in the habit of regarding these portions of the creation as such, and no more.
Chemistry, too, is apt to be considered by young women as far too elaborate and masculine a study to engage their attention; and thus they are satisfied, not only to go on through life unacquainted with those wonderful combinations and properties, which in some of the most familiar things would throw light upon their real nature, and proper use; but also to remain unenlightened in that noblest school of knowledge, which teaches the sublime truth, that the wonder-working power of God has been employed upon all the familiar, as well as the astonishing objects we perceive; and that the same power continues to be exemplified in their perpetual creation, their order, adaptation, and use.
Chiefly, however, would I recommend to the attention of youth, an intimate acquaintance with the nature and habits of the animal world. Here we may find a source of rational and delightful interest, which can never fail us, so long as a bird is heard to sing upon the trees, or a butterfly is seen to sport among the flowers.
I will not go the length of recommending to my young countrywomen to become collectors, either of animals or of insects; because, as in the case of translations from the best of ancient writers, this has already been done for them, better than they are likely to do it for themselves; and because I am not quite sure, that simply for our own amusement, and without any reference to serving the purpose of science, we have a right to make even a beetle struggle to death upon the point of a pin, or to crowd together boxes full of living creatures, who, in the agony of their pent-up sufferings, devour and destroy one another.
Happily for us, there are ably written books on these subjects, from which we can learn more than from our own observation; and museums accessible to all, where different specimens of insects, and other animals, are so arranged as materially to assist in understanding their nature and classification; and far more congenial it surely must be to the heart and mind of woman, to read all which able and enlightened men have told us of this world of wonder, and then to go forth into the fields, and see the busy and beautiful creatures by which it is inhabited, sporting in the joyous freedom of nature, unharmed, and unsuspicious of harm. Yes, there is an acquaintance with the animal creation, which might be cultivated, so as to do good to the heart, both of the child and the philosopher—an acquaintance which seems to absolve these helpless creatures from the curse of estrangement from their sovereign man—an acquaintance which brings them near to us in all their natural peculiarities, their amazing instincts, and in the voiceless, and otherwise unintelligible secrets of their mysterious existence.
And it is good to be thus acquainted with that portion of creation which acknowledges, in common with ourselves, the great principle of animal life, to know that enjoyment is enjoyment, and that pain is pain, to myriads and myriads of beings, in some respects more beautiful, in others more curious, and in all more innocent, than ourselves. It is good to know, so far as men can know, for what purpose Almighty power has created them. It is good to behold their beauty, to understand their wonderful formation, and to examine the fairy fancy-work of some of their sacred little homes. It is good to be acquainted with the strength of the mother's love, when she stoops her wing to the spoiler, and offers her own life to save her tender brood. It is good to know that the laws of nature, in their filial and parental influences, cannot be violated without sorrow as intense, though not as lasting, as that which tortures the human heart on the separation of parent and child. It is good to know how these creatures, placed by Divine wisdom under the power and dominion of man, are made to suffer or to die when he neglects or abuses them.
The earth and the air, the woods and the streams, the gardens and the fields, tell us of all this. When we sit under the shade of a lofty tree, in the stillness of summer's balmy noon, the note of the woodpigeon salutes us from above. We look up, and the happy couple are nestling on a bough, as closely, side by side, as if the whole world to them was nothing, so long as their faithful love was left. On a lower branch of the same tree, or on a broken rail close by, the little robin sits and sings, looking occasionally askance into the face of that lordly creature whom instinct teaches him to shun. Yet is it less a reproachful, than an inquiring glance, as if he would ask, whether you could really wish to frighten him with all the terrors which agitate his little breast on your approach. And then he sings to you again, a low soft warble; though his voice is never quite so sweet as in the autumn, when other birds are silent, and he still sings on amidst the falling leaves and faded flowers. Next, the butterfly comes wavering into sight, yet hastening on to turn its golden wings once more up to the sunshine. The bee then hurries past, intent upon its labours, and attracted only for a moment by the nosegay in your hand; while the grasshopper, that master of ventriloquism, invites your curiosity—now here, now there, but never to the spot where his real presence is to be found. And all this while, the faithful dog is at your feet. If you rise, at the same moment he rises too; and if you sit down, he also composes himself to rest. Ever ready to go, or stay, he watches your slightest movement; and so closely and mysteriously is his being absorbed in yours, that, although a ramble in the fields affords him a perfect ecstasy of delight, he never allows himself this indulgence, without your countenance and companionship.
But it is impossible so much as to name one in a thousand of the sweet and cheering influences of animal life upon the youthful heart. The very atmosphere we live in teems with it; the woods are vocal—the groves are filled with it; while around our doors, within our homes, and even at our social hearth, the unfailing welcome, the transient glimpses of intelligence, the instinct, the love of these creatures, are interwoven with the vast chain of sympathy, which, through the whole of what may be a wandering and uncertain life, binds us to that spot of earth where we first awoke to a feeling of companionship with this portion of the creatures of our heavenly Father's care.
Nor must we forget the wonderful and mysterious affection which some animals are capable of feeling for man. Often as we may have failed to inspire the love we have sought for among our fellow-creatures, we are all capable of inspiring attachment here; nor does the fact of our being unattractive, or comparatively worthless, amongst mankind, operate in the slightest degree to our disadvantage with this class of beings. Witness the outcast from society—the wanderer on the public roads—the poor and houseless mendicant; he still has his dog—yes, and he bears the cold repulse he meets with when he asks for bread, better than he could bear the desertion of that faithful animal: but he fears it not. The proud may pass him by unheeded, the rich may spurn him from their doors, the vulgar and the unfeeling may make a mockery of his rags and wretchedness; but when the stormy night comes on, and he seeks the almost roofless shed to rest his weary limbs, he is followed even there by one friend, who creeps beside him with a love as watchful and as true as if he shared the silken couch of luxury and ease.
There are little motherless children, too, and others not unacquainted with a feeling of almost orphan solitude, who have felt, at times, how the affection of a dumb animal could supply the disappointed yearnings of a young warm heart. In after life, we may learn to look upon these creatures with respect, because our heavenly Father has thought them worthy of his care; but youth is the season when we love them for their own sakes; and because we then discover that they can be made, by kindness, to love us. In youth alone can we feel to unite them with ourselves in that bond of sympathy, which will never afterwards allow us to treat their sufferings with indifference, or to regard their happiness as beyond the sphere of our duty to promote.
Here, then, the law of love is made to operate through innumerable channels of sweet and natural feeling, extending over a wide field of creation, and reaping its reward of satisfaction wherever a poor animal is rescued from oppression, hunger, or pain.
The study of natural history is, perhaps, the most congenial pursuit to which the mind of youth can be introduced; and it never can begin with this too soon. The history and nature of plants is the next most pleasing study, though far inferior to the first, for this important reason—our acquaintance with animals involves a moral feeling; and not one feeling only, but a vast chain of sympathies and affections, which, if not touched in early life, are seldom afterwards called forth with any degree of earnestness or warmth; and for a woman to be insensible or indifferent to the happiness of the brute creation, is an idea too repulsive to be dwelt upon for a moment.
There is, however, a sickly sensibility indulged in by some young ladies, which I should be the last to recommend. Many, for instance, will nurse and fondle animals, without ever taking the trouble to feed them. Others shrink away with loathing at the sight of pain, which, if they would but exert themselves to remove, might easily be remedied. I remember a young girl with whom I was well acquainted, having watched a cat torment a mouse until she could bear it no longer, when at last, with a feeling of the utmost repugnance to the act, she snatched up the poor lacerated mouse, and killed it in a moment. On seeing her do this, two very delicate and estimable young ladies gave themselves up to shrieks and hysterics, although they had known for the previous half hour that the little helpless animal had been enduring the most cruel torture in the claws of the cat, and they had borne this knowledge with the greatest composure.
It is not, then, a delicate shrinking from the mere sight of pain, which constitutes that kindly feeling towards the animal creation, that forms so estimable a part of the female character; but that expansive sentiment of benevolence towards all the creatures of God's formation, which is founded on the principle of love, and which operates as a principle in prompting us to promote the good of all creatures that have life, and to promote it on the widest possible scale.
But to return to the subject of botany. A woman who does not love flowers, suffers a great want in her supplies of healthy and natural enjoyment. How could the poet Milton, when he pictured woman in her highest state of excellence, have employed our mother Eve, had he made her indifferent to the beauty of the plants of paradise, or negligent of the flowers which bloomed around her? Still, I must acknowledge that there is to many minds, something the reverse of attractive in the first aspect of the study of botany, as it is generally presented to our attention. In this I am supported by one of the most gifted of modern authors, when he speaks of the "ponderous nomenclature" of botany having frightened many a youthful student back from the portals of this study. There are many persons now advanced in life, who deeply regret their want of what is called a taste for botany, when the fault has not been in their natural taste, so much as in the form under which this study was introduced to their notice in youth; and thus they have been shut out through the whole of life, from the pleasure of expatiating in a field, as boundless in its extent, as inexhaustible in its attractions.
These difficulties, however, are not insurmountable to all; and youth is unquestionably the season for forming an intimate acquaintance with this, the loveliest aspect of nature, so that in after life, when duties are more imperative, and occupations more serious, and there is consequently less time for minute investigation, every flower and every plant may be met as a member of a well-known family, and, as such, bear somewhat of the character of a familiar friend.
It is the same with every part of the creation, whether natural history, or botany, or geology, have occupied our attention, or chemistry, or electricity, that great mystery of the visible world, whose all-powerful agency, the most sublime as well as the most insignificant phenomena of nature, are daily, and hourly, tending to develope—an early and intimate acquaintance with each and all of these, must so far enlighten, and enlarge the mind, as to lead our thoughts beyond the narrow limits of material existence, up to that higher region of wonder and of love, where to behold is to admire—to feel is to adore.
From the consideration of the different advantages arising from such studies as it is important should be pursued at an early period of life, we are necessarily led to ask, 'What is the use of Knowledge in general?'
Nothing can well be more vague than the notions popularly entertained of the meaning of knowledge. Dr. Johnson has called it "general illumination of mind." But, if I might be allowed to do so, I should prefer restricting my use of the word knowledge, to that acquaintance with facts, which, in connexion with the proper exercise of a healthy mind, will necessarily lead to general illumination. A knowledge of the world, therefore, as I propose to use the expression, must consequently mean, a knowledge of such facts as the general habits of society develope.
This is universally allowed to be a dangerous knowledge, because it cannot be acquired without the risk of being frequently deceived by the false aspect which society assumes, and the still greater risk of having our moral being too deeply absorbed in the interest and excitement which the study itself affords. No one can obtain a knowledge of the world, by being a mere spectator. It is, therefore, safer and happier to leave this study until the judgment is more matured, and the habits and principles more formed—or rather I should say, to leave it as a study altogether. Time and experience teach us all it is necessary to know on this subject; and even duty urges us forward on the theatre of life, when little enough prepared for the temptations and the conflicts we must there encounter. By absolute necessity, then, we acquire as much knowledge of the world as any rational being needs desire, and that is just sufficient to enable us to judge of the consequences of certain principles, or modes of action, as they operate upon the well-being of individuals, and of society at large. Destitute of this degree of worldly knowledge, we must ever be liable to make the most serious mistakes in applying the principle of benevolence, in forming our estimate of the moral condition of mankind, as well as in regulating our scale of social and relative duty.
A general knowledge of the political and social state of the country in which we live, and indeed of all countries, is of great importance, not only to men, but to women. Nor let my fair readers be startled when I speak of the political state of countries. You have been accustomed to make history your study. An acquaintance with the most important eras in history is considered an essential part of female education. And can it be less essential to know what events are taking place in your own times, than what transpired in past ages? Do not, however, misunderstand me on this important subject. Do not suppose it would add any embellishment to your conversation, for you to discuss what are called politics, simply as such, especially when, as in nine cases out of ten, you do not really understand what you are talking about. Do not take up any question as belonging to your side, or your party, while ignorant what the principles of that party are. Above all, do not allow yourself to grow warm in your advocacy of any particular candidate for a seat in parliament, because he is a handsome man, or has made a fine speech. All this may supply an opposite party with food for scandal, or for jest; but has nothing at all to do with that patriotic and deep feeling of interest in the happiness and prosperity of her own country, which a benevolent and enlightened woman must naturally entertain.
Destitute as some women are of every spark of this feeling, it is but natural that their conversation should at times be both trifling and vapid; and that when subjects of general importance are discussed, they should be too much occupied with a pattern of worsted work, even to listen.I one day heard a very accomplished and amiable young lady lamenting that she had nothing to talk about, except a subject which had been playfully forbidden. "Talk about the probability of a war," said I. "Why should I talk about that?" she replied. "It is nothing to me whether there is war or not." Now, this was said in perfect sincerity, and yet the lady was a Christian woman, and one who would have been very sorry to be suspected of not knowing the dates of most of the great battles recorded in history.
I am perfectly aware that there are intricate questions, brought before our senate, which it may require a masculine order of intellect folly to understand. But there are others which may, and ought to engage the attention of every female mind, such as the extinction of slavery, the abolition of war in general, cruelty to animals, the punishment of death, temperance, and many more, on which, neither to know, nor to feel, is almost equally disgraceful.
I must again observe, it is by no means necessary that we should talk much on these subjects, even if we do understand them; but to listen attentively, and with real interest when they are discussed by able and liberal-minded men, is an easy and agreeable method of enlarging our stock of valuable knowledge; and, by doing this when we are young, we shall go on with the tide of public events, so as to render ourselves intelligent companions in old age; and when the bloom of youth is gone, and even animal spirits decline, we shall have our conversation left, for the entertainment and the benefit of our friends.For my own part, I know of no interest more absorbing, than that with which we listen to a venerable narrator of by-gone facts—facts which have transpired under the actual observation of the speaker, in which he took a part, or which stirred the lives, and influenced the conduct, of those by whom he was surrounded. When such a person has been a lover of sterling truth, and a close observer of things as they really were in early youth, his conversation is such as sages, listen to, and historians make the theme of their imperishable pages. Yet, such a companion every woman is capable of becoming; and since old age is not rich in its attractions, is it not well worthy the attention of youth, to endeavour to lay up, as a provision for the future, such sterling materials for rational and lasting interest?
It is worthy of observation, however, that such information can never be of half the value when collected in a vague and indefinite form. The lover of sterling truth alone is able to render the relation of facts of any real value. The mere story-teller, who paints the truth in his own colours, may amuse for an evening; but unless we choose truth—absolute truth as our companion in early life, the foundation of our opinions, as well as of our principles, will be ever liable to give way. We must, therefore, cultivate a willingness to see things as they really are. Not as our friends do, or as our enemies do not see them; but simply as they are, and, as such, to speak of them, without the bias of party feeling, or the colouring of our own selfishness.
The local customs of the place in which we live, and the habits of thinking of the persons with whom we associate, will naturally, in the course of time, produce considerable effect upon our own views. But in youth, the mind is free to choose, open to conviction, uninfluenced by prejudice, and comparatively unoccupied by previous impressions. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance, in this early stage of life, to cultivate that love of truth which will enable us to see every object as it really is, and to see it clearly; for there are vague impressions, and indefinite perceptions, which create in the mind a succession of shapeless images, as perplexing in their variety, as they are uncertain in their form.
Of persons whose minds are thus occupied, it can scarcely be said that they love the truth, because they seldom endeavour to ascertain what the truth is; and their consequent deviations from the exact line of rectitude in thought and action, brings upon them, not unfrequently, the charge of falsehood, when they have all the while been true to the image floating before them, but which assumed a different character as often as interest or inclination clothed it in fresh colours.
Vague and uncertain habits of thinking and talking in early life, almost necessarily lead to false conclusions; nor is it the least part of the evil, that those who indulge them are extremely difficult to correct when wrong, or rather when not exactly right; because conviction cannot be proved upon uncertainty. All we can say of such persons is, that they are as little wrong, as right. We cannot help them. They are perpetually falling into difficulties, and, so long as they live, will be liable to incur the suspicion of falsehood.
That a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, may be proved by the observation of every day. A little knowledge is generally more talked about than a great deal—more dragged forward into notice, and, in short, more gloried in by its possessor. We will take, as an instance, the subject of phrenology. Dabblers in this study, who like the eclat of pronouncing upon the characters of their neighbours, as discovered through that opaque medium, the skull, are not a little pleased to entertain themselves and others with the phraseology of Gall and Spurzheim; while, with an air of oracular wisdom, they tell how this person is covetous, another prone to kill, a third fond of music, and a fourth in the habit of making comparisons. Now, although a correct knowledge of the exact situation of these different organs in the head, is more difficult to attain than most young persons are aware of; yet, even this part of the study is mere play, when compared with that exercise of mind, which alone would justify any one, even the profoundest philosopher, in pronouncing upon individual character, according to the principles of phrenology. Would any of these fair oracles, for instance, be kind enough to tell us what would be the result, in summing up the elements of human character, where there was an extraordinary development of combativeness, connected with half as much benevolence, nine-tenths of the same amount of hope, one-third of self-esteem, three-fourths of causality, and one-third of constructiveness. And yet, calculations as intricate, as minute, and far more extensive than this, must be entered into, before the science of phrenology, however true, can enable any individual to pronounce upon the character of another.
And thus it is throughout. A little knowledge makes people talk, a little more induces them to think; and women, from the careless and superficial manner in which their studies are frequently carried on, are but too apt to be found amongst the class of talkers. But let us pause a moment, to inquire whether the smallness of their stock of knowledge is really the cause why it is sometimes so unnecessarily brought forward. Is not the evil of a deeper nature? and may it not arise from false notions popularly entertained respecting the real use of knowledge? I will not say there are any women who absolutely believe that the use of knowledge is to supply them with something to talk about; but are we not warranted in suspecting that this is the rule, by which the value of knowledge is too frequently estimated?
Now, one simple view of this subject might settle the question at once, as to the desirableness, or even utility, of women bringing forward their knowledge for the purpose of display. It so happens, that few of our sex, under ordinary circumstances, have an opportunity of acquiring as much general knowledge as a man of common attainments, or even as a mere boy. If we mix in country circles, the village schoolmaster has stores of knowledge far beyond our own; and in the society of towns, the man of business, nay, even the mechanic, knows more than we do. The nature of their employments, the associations they form, and the subjects which engage their attention, all tend to give to the minds of men in general, a clearness of understanding on certain points, and an acquaintance with important facts, beyond what is possessed by one woman in a thousand; though, at the same time, women have a vast advantage over them in this respect, that the liveliness and facility of their intellectual powers, enable them to invest with interest many of the inferior, and less important topics of conversation.
General knowledge, however, is not less important to them, than to men, in the effect it produces upon their own minds and feelings. A well-informed woman may generally be known, not so much by what she tells you, as by what she does not tell you; for she is the last to take pleasure in mere gossip, or to make vulgar allusions to the appearance, dress, or personal habits, of her friends and neighbours. Her thoughts are not in these things. The train of her reflections goes not along with the eating, drinking, visiting, or scandal, of the circle in which she moves. She has a world of interest beyond her local associations; and while others are wondering what is the price of her furniture, or where she bought her watch; she, perhaps, is mentally solving that important question, whether civilization ever was extinguished in a Christian country.Nor is it merely to be able to say, when asked, in what year any particular sovereign reigned—that knowledge is worth acquiring. Its highest use is to be able to assist on all occasions in the establishment of truth, by a clear statement of facts; to say what experience has proved; and to overcome prejudice by just reasoning. It enables us also to take expansive views of every subject upon which our minds can be employed, so as never to argue against general principles, from opposite impressions produced merely upon our own minds.
As a farther illustration of this narrow kind of reasoning, we will suppose a case. A well-meaning, but ignorant man, derives a considerable income from a sugar plantation in the West Indies, by which he supports a number of poor relations. He argues thus—"If slavery be abolished, it will injure my profits; and I shall no longer be able to support my relations. It is good that I should exercise my benevolent feelings through this channel; consequently, the slave-trade must also be good. I will, therefore, neither vote for the abolition of slavery, nor give my countenance to those who do." A more truly enlightened man, though no more influenced by kindly feeling, would know, that it must always be right to uphold right principles, and that God may safely be trusted with the consequences to ourselves.
Nor is it from our own personal feelings alone, that we become liable to this perversion of judgment, with regard to things in general. Prejudice has ever been found more infectious than the plague, and scarcely less fatal. We hear our friends speak warmly on subjects we do not understand. They argue vehemently, and our minds, from want of knowledge, are open to receive as truth, the greatest possible absurdities, which, in our turn, we embrace and defend, until they become more dear to us than truth itself. The probable conclusion is, that in the course of time, we prefer to remain in error, rather than be convinced that we have all the while been wrong. Thus, it is often ignorance alone, which lays the foundation of many of those serious mistakes in opinion and conduct, for which we have to bear all the blame, and suffer all the consequences, of moral culpability.
Want of general knowledge is also a very sufficient reason why some persons, when they mix in good society, live in a state of perpetual fear lest their deficiencies should be found out. Their's is not that amiable modesty which arises from a sense of the superiority of others; for to admire our friends, or even our fellow-creatures, is always a pleasurable sensation; while a conviction of our own ignorance of such topics as are generally interesting in good society, carries with it a feeling of disgraceful humiliation, perfectly incompatible with enjoyment. Uneasiness, timidity, and shyness, with an awkward shrinking from every office of responsibility, or post of distinction, are the unavoidable accompaniments of this conviction; and from this cause, how many opportunities of extending our sphere of usefulness are lost! How many opportunities of rational and lawful enjoyment, too, especially if, from a consciousness of our own inferiority, we refuse to associate with persons of better information and more enlightened minds. Our sufferings are then of a twofold nature, arising from a sense of mortification at our loss, and from the fretfulness and irritation of temper which such privations naturally occasion.
It is well, too, if envy does not steal in, to poison the little comfort we might otherwise have left — well if we do not look with evil eye upon the higher attainments of our friends — well if, while we professedly admire, we do not throw out some hint that may tend to diminish their value in the estimation of others.
Thus, there is no end to that culpable want of knowledge, which must be the consequence of an idle or wasted youth. We may, and we necessarily must, learn much in after years by experience, observation, reading, and conversation. But we are then, perhaps, in middle age, only acquiring a bare knowledge of those facts, which ought in by-gone years to have been forming our judgment, fixing our principles, and supplying our minds with intellectual food.
If there is no calculation to be made of the evils arising from a want of knowledge, as little can we estimate the amount of good, of which knowledge lays the foundation. Perhaps one of its greatest recommendations to a woman, is the tendency it has to diffuse a calm over the ruffled spirit, and to supply subjects of interesting reflection, under circumstances the least favourable to the acquisition of new ideas.
Such is the position in society which many estimable women are called to fill, that unless they have stored their minds with general knowledge during the season of youth, they never have the opportunity of doing so again. How valuable, then, is such a store, to draw upon for thought, when the hand throughout the day is busily employed, and sometimes when the head is also weary. It is then that knowledge not only sweetens labour, but often, when the task is ended, and a few social friends are met together, it comes forth unbidden, in those glimpses of illumination which a well-informed, intelligent woman, is able to strike out of the humblest material. It is then that, without the slightest attempt at display, her memory helps her to throw in those apt allusions, which clothe the most familiar objects in borrowed light, and make us feel, after having enjoyed her society, as if we had been introduced to a new, and more intellectual existence than we had enjoyed before.
It is impossible for an ignorant, and consequently a short-sighted, prejudiced woman, to exercise this influence over us. We soon perceive the bounds of the narrow circle within which she reasons, with self ever in the centre; we detect the opinions of others, in her own; and we feel the vulgarity with which her remarks may turn upon ourselves, the moment we are gone.
How different is the enjoyment, the repose we feel in the society of a well-informed woman, who has acquired in early youth the habit of looking beyond the little affairs of every-day existence—of looking from matter to mind—from action to principle—from time to eternity. The gossip of society—that many-toned organ of discord, seldom reaches her; even slander, which so often slays the innocent, she is in many cases able to disarm. Under all the little crosses and perplexities which necessarily belong to household care, she is able to look calmly at their comparative insignificance, and thus they never can disturb her peace; while in all the pleasures of intellectual and social intercourse, it is her privilege to give as bountifully as she receives.
It must not be supposed that the writer is one who would advocate, as essential to a woman, any very extraordinary degree of intellectual attainment, especially if confined to one particular branch of study. "I should like to excel in something," is a frequent, and, to some extent, a laudable expression; but in what does it originate, and to what does it tend? To be able to do a great many things tolerably well, is of infinitely more value to a woman, than to be able to excel in one. By the former, she may render herself generally useful; by the latter, she may dazzle for an hour. By being apt, and tolerably well skilled in everything, she may fall into any situation in life with dignity and ease—by devoting her time to excellence in one, she may remain incapable of every other.
So far as cleverness, learning, and knowledge are conducive to woman's moral excellence, they are therefore desirable, and no farther. All that would occupy her mind to the exclusion of better things, all that would involve her in the mazes of flattery and admiration, all that would tend to draw away her thoughts from others and fix them on herself, ought to be avoided as an evil to her, however brilliant or attractive it may be in itself.